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One of the debates in media circles is over the concept of #FakeNews and what it means. If you listen to the mainstream media they will tell you there is no such thing, only a cynical anti-media campaign by Trump. But we all know it exists. For instance, in 1993, NBC reported that GM full-size pickups were prone to bursting into flame (i.e., going full Ford Pinto) when rear-ended. In fact, NBC planted an incendiary device in the vehicle to ensure it did burst into flames. And who can forget Dan freakin Rather and the Texas Air National Guard documents he flogged during the 2004 election in an attempt to defeat George Bush? Since the 2016 election, part of the media has tried to redefine #FakeNews as shoddy fake stories, as opposed to something aired on CNN, that could only fool a Trump supporter. Because Facebook distributed #FakeNews is why Hillary Clinton didn’t campaign in Wisconsin or central Pennsylvania.
To push that concept, Politico has an article titled How a fake-news story spreads.
Kurt Withrow, a former insurance salesman from Palatine, Illinois, didn’t mean to become one of the thousands of people who helped propel forward one of the most persistent fake news stories of the last year. But in January, a story making its way around Facebook caught his eye.
The headline, on many versions of the fabricated story, blared: “BREAKING: First Full Supreme Court Ruling In Over A Year Has Obama FURIOUS.”
Withrow read on about how, “Just last week the United States Supreme Court issued a direct and final blow to the Islamic Indoctrination of the young in this nation.” With a “tie-breaking vote” from Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court handed down a decision “banning Sharia Law and Islam from being taught in classrooms,” the story claimed.
Enthused by a decision he thought long overdue, Withrow copy-and-pasted chunks of the story into a post on Facebook, and added a bit of his own commentary. “This is the kind of story everyone SHOULD be hearing or reading in the media… but obviously it is not,” he wrote. A photo of Gorsuch shaking hands with President Trump appeared beside the text.
In years past, it was easier. News was handed down from on-high, for better or worse, with editors in newspaper offices and at TV and radio stations deciding what did and didn’t merit attention. But with the decline of establishment media — including local media, which has been particularly devastated by the industry’s shifting economics — Americans are looking elsewhere for their news, which increasingly means Facebook and other social media platforms.
Key elements. Reader doesn’t pick up on spelling or syntax issues. Reader passes it to friends. Friends pass it to friends of friends. And on and on until soon the whole nation is reading it and holding “no more Sharia” parties. All of this could have been prevented if only the right people were controlling what you read. Have you ever heard of this nonsense? I know I haven’t. In fact, I try to keep up on stuff like this because it makes for good fodder to blog about. But the big takeaway from the story is this. The “news” originated as parody. The “news” was on a subject that could be easily verified. Even if the “news” was believed, so what? In other words, this is simply idiots being taken. Sort of like Snopes.com fact-checking parody site Babylon Bee (“Did CNN Purchase an Industrial-Sized Washing Machine to Spin News?“).
The Weekly Standard took a few minutes out from hating Trump and deifying John McCain to write another piece on #FakeNews: Birth of a Counternarrative. The backdrop for this is the US strikes on Syria for using chemical weapons.
In late April, I came across the intrepid headline “BREAKING: OPCW finds NO Chemical Weapons at Damascus research center,” a claim peddled by a website named the Duran that had quickly gained momentum on Facebook.
This account of findings by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) turned out to be false. Fact checking it, I began to see just how much “fake news” the Russian and the Syrian governments had been churning out since the chemical attacks earlier that month, and how some Western media outlets came to accept these stories.
Two days after the attack, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson also cast doubt that Assad was the perpetrator. “We should be skeptical of this,” Carlson told viewers on April 9, “starting with the poison gas attack itself.” “How would it benefit Assad using chlorine gas last weekend? . . . It wouldn’t,” Carlson said, pointing to Trump’s stated desire to pull troops out of Syria (which a renewed use of chemical weapons would undermine) and Assad’s nearing victory over the rebel forces. “ ‘Well, he did it anyway,’ they tell us. ‘He’s that evil!’ Please.”
Russia Today spread the pro-Assad narrative nonstop from its worldwide television network, repeatedly claiming in the days after the attack that it was “staged to provoke a U.S. airstrike.” “Syria and Russia have dismissed the accusations and called the reports fake news,” Russia Today announced one day after the attack, “aimed at helping the extremists and at justifying potential strikes against Syrian forces.”
On April 13, Russia’s defense ministry accused the U.K. of helping the rebels stage the attack, a line that Russia Today and Sputnik soon picked up. Such “false flag” theories have been promulgated by Russian media outlets and the Assad regime after previous chemical weapons attacks in Syria. The line runs counter to a 2017 U.N. report confirming that Assad’s government had perpetrated at least 27 chemical attacks since the civil war began seven years ago. The U.S. government says there have been 50 chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government, and there are unconfirmed accounts placing the number above 70.
Unlike the sharia-is-outlawed story, I was not only aware this was going on but posted on how the Russians had laid the groundwork to blame other actors and how, when that didn’t work, they immediately tried several other lines of defense. I also saw it on Twitter and on websites that are sorta sympathetic to Assad.
And, of course, there is a third variety of #FakeNews that Politico would want you to ignore. The first two cases are actually benign. Sharia is still legal and a few people feel foolish. It has been documented that Syria used chemical weapons and any credibility Russia had was shredded by their obvious propaganda campaign and complicity in the chemical attacks. The third case…well, not so much.
These are stories run by news media that are designed to promote a narrative and to damage people. Prime example. On Friday, December 1, ABC’s Brian Ross ran a story that said Mike Flynn had testified to the special counsel that prior to the election, President Trump had ordered him to make contact with the Russians. The Dow dropped 350 points. Seven hours later ABC corrected the story. It turned out that President Trump had told National Security Adviser Flynn to contact the Russians — after the election. How did this happen? It is difficult to believe that this was an accident given the experience of the reporter or the magnitude of the story. Mistakes happen…but not mistakes of this magnitude…and neither do all the mistakes run in the same direction. Rather it was simply the weaponization of the media. This was an information operation very similar to the story produced by Russian sources about the Syrian chemical attack. It was designed to further the Russia collusion narrative and to lock in Flynn’s role as a shifty guy owned by Putin. The fact that billions of dollars were lost because of the story doesn’t matter. Omelets and eggs, you know. CNN does this kind of thing, daily, except without retractions. Instead, they trot out Brian “Mr. Potato Head” Stelter to explain how everyone actually misunderstood what happened.
What all three categories have in common is that they are fake. Beyond that, the similarities end. Unlike the first two categories, this category of #FakeNews is pernicious. The fake story is tossed out, left there to incubate for a while, and then quietly withdrawn. Unlike some unknown Facebook parody site or Russia-friendly news outlets, ABC’s reach is north of 10 million. Most of those saw the Flynn story. Many, many fewer have ever been made aware of the retraction.
Politico is trying to paint #FakeNews as something only the marginally educated fall for. That happens but those hoaxes are the equivalent of April Fool’s pranks. The real damage is done by the agenda driven reporting by major news organizations who use smear-loud-retract-quiet as a deliberate strategy to damage the Trump administration.